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Opus Dei: Introduction


If you want a guiding metaphor for Opus Dei, the spiritual organization founded in Spain in 1928 by Saint Josemaría Escrivá that has become the most controversial force in Roman Catholicism, think of it as the Guinness Extra Stout of the Catholic Church. It's a strong brew, definitely an acquired taste, and clearly not for everyone.


Putting things this way immediately runs the risk of being superficial, not to mention giving offense, since Opus Dei is not a commercial product but a spiritual path that aims at the sanctification of the secular world, a path followed with great fidelity and moral seriousness by some eighty-five thousand people worldwide and admired by millions of others. It is also bitterly opposed by a substantial sector of opinion inside and outside the Catholic Church. To compare Opus Dei to a beer could seem like a way of trivializing it. Yet the "Guinness Extra Stout" image captures something important about the role Opus Dei occupies on the Catholic stage, and it's worth taking a moment to tease it out.

In an era when the beer market is crowded with "diet" this and "lite" that, Guinness Extra Stout cuts the other way. It makes no apologies for either its many calories or its high alcohol content. It packs a frothy, bitter taste that has been compared by some wags to drinking motor oil with a head. Precisely because it resists faddishness, it enjoys a cult following among purists who respect it because it never wavers. Of course, if you think it tastes awful, its consistency may not be its greatest selling point. Yet while Extra Stout may never dominate the market, it will always have a loyal constituency.

To apply this image to the Catholic Church, the four decades since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) have also to some extent been marked by a "less is more" spirit. Broadly speaking, the thrust of Vatican II was to throw open the windows of the Church, updating and rejuvenating it by returning to the gospel basics, offering a greater openness to the world, and promoting greater unity among the divided Christian family and with all of humanity. In the rites and rituals of the Church, there was a strong push for simplification, most notably the dropping of Latin as the principal language of worship and adopting the vernacular. Many traditional devotions and practices fell into disuse while spiritual disciplines such as the Friday fast were relaxed. Ecumenical and interreligious dialogue replaced apologetics as the primary way of interacting with people in other confessions and religious traditions. Priests and nuns often stopped wearing distinctive religious garb, fearing that it came across as a sign of privilege or a way of distancing themselves from the people they wanted to serve. In many sectors of opinion, the Church's mission came to be understood in terms of promoting human and social development in the here and now, with too much talk about prayer and the sacraments seen as pie-in-the-sky spiritualizing. Memorization of doctrine gave way in much Catholic education to a more analytical and critical approach, and charitable activity was supplemented by attention to the structural dimension of global injustices and what has come to be known as "social sin." All of these statements are caricatures of complex theological and ecclesial trends, but they indicate broad lines of development.

In this era of new ecclesiastical brews, Opus Dei offers a robustly classical alternative. Like Guinness, the "market share" of Opus Dei in global Catholicism is, given its outsize public image, remarkably small. According to the 2004 Annuario Pontificio, the official Vatican yearbook, Opus Dei numbers 1,850 priests in the world, along with 83,641 laity, for a total of 85,491 members, representing .008 percent of the global Catholic population of 1.1 billion (55 percent of Opus Dei members, by the way, are women). For a sense of scale, the archdiocese of Hobart on the Australian island of Tasmania contains 87,691 members, meaning that all by itself it's bigger than Opus Dei worldwide.

Opus Dei, which in Latin means "the Work of God," is formally classified as the only "personal prelature" in the Catholic Church, which means that the head of the group in Rome, currently Bishop Javier Echevarría Rodríguez, has jurisdiction over members for matters that regard the internal life of Opus Dei. For matters concerning all Catholics, members of Opus Dei remain under the jurisdiction of the local bishop. Usually, however, Opus Dei is seen as part of a flowering of lay-led movements and groups in the twentieth century, and it found international fame in the period after the Second Vatican Council.

There is a strong emphasis within the clergy of Opus Dei on old-school priestly discipline. They wear clerical dress, pray the breviary, and spend lots of time in the confessional. One sign of their earnestness is that to date, not a single priest of Opus Dei in the United States has been accused of sexual abuse or removed from ministry under the special rules approved in 2002 for the American Church by the Vatican.

The core idea of Opus Dei, as presented by Escrivá, is the sanctification of ordinary work, meaning that one can find God through the practice of law, engineering, or medicine, by picking up the garbage or by delivering the mail, if one brings to that work the proper Christian spirit. In order to cultivate such a spirit, Opus Dei members undergo extensive doctrinal and spiritual formation, and generally don't cut corners in the pursuit of holiness. Most Catholics don't visit the Blessed Sacrament anymore? Opus Dei members are required to do so every day. Most Catholics don't pray the rosary? Again, Opus Dei members do it every day. In Kenya, Archbishop Raphael S. Ndingi of Nairobi jokingly told me that in the old days, if you wanted to identify Opus Dei members in Africa, the thing to do was to give them a ride. If they asked to be let off a mile from their destination so they could say the rosary, they were Opus Dei. Many Catholics today take at least some aspects of Church teaching with a grain of salt, but Opus Dei members are encouraged to "think with the Church," meaning to accept the entirety of Church teaching on faith and morals. There is a strong emphasis within the clergy of Opus Dei on old-school priestly discipline. They wear clerical dress, pray the breviary, and spend lots of time in the confessional. One sign of their earnestness is that to date, not a single priest of Opus Dei in the United States has been accused of sexual abuse or removed from ministry under the special rules approved in 2002 for the American Church by the Vatican.

It's not quite right to call this a "traditional" alternative to a more "liberal" postconciliar Catholicism, since from a historical point of view Opus Dei is not traditional at all. Its vision of laity and priests, women and men, sharing the same vocation and being part of the same body, all free to pursue that vocation within their professional sphere as they see fit, was so innovative that Escrivá was accused of heresy in 1940s Spain. Inside Opus Dei, most priests have lay spiritual directors, which is a break with traditional clerical culture, and the laity of Opus Dei, both men and women, cast votes for their prelate (meaning the cleric in charge), which is as close to the democratic election of a bishop as one comes in today's Catholic Church. Opus Dei was the first institution in the Catholic Church to request, and to receive in 1950, Vatican permission to enroll non-Catholics and even non-Christians among its "cooperators," meaning nonmember supporters.

More broadly, Escrivá's insistence that the real work of bringing the gospel to the world is to be carried out by laypeople through their secular occupations marks something of a Copernican shift for Catholicism, which has tended to see the laity as a supporting cast in the spiritual drama, with priests and nuns as the lead actors. In a sense, the culture wars of the post-Vatican II period, marked by perennial antagonism between "left" and "right," have obscured the original spiritual insights of Opus Dei. What people see is the uncompromising orthodoxy and papal loyalty in which Opus Dei's message is wrapped, but rarely the message itself.

Despite this, the spirituality and doctrinal convictions of most Opus Dei members do frequently seem "traditional" by contemporary standards, if only in the sense that they have clung to older prayers, practices, and disciplines in a time when many of those traditions were being understood in new ways or abandoned. In that sense, Opus Dei is a jolt to a certain kind of Catholic sensibility, to say nothing of a secular outlook that often doesn't understand institutional religion.

Perhaps because of its "Stout Catholicism" ethos, Opus Dei has become a marker for the broader culture wars in the Church and in the culture. Self-described Catholic "liberals" typically dislike and oppose Opus Dei. "Conservatives" generally find themselves drawn to its defense, if only because they dislike its critics so intensely. In the broader secular world, Opus Dei has become a shorthand reference for a secretive, closed society with an elitist flavor, a bit like Skull and Bones or the Masons. Thanks to the runaway commercial success of Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, these perceptions of Opus Dei have gone mass-market.

Because Opus Dei sets the bar high for its members, the landing can be especially rough when things go wrong. Many ex-members, enough to suggest this is something more than innuendo, report having been hurt by their experiences they say they were brought to the brink of physical and emotional exhaustion, their contacts with the outside world attenuated, and their approach to both Opus Dei and authority in general steered in the direction of unthinking obedience. As a result, Opus Dei is criticized by a certain percentage of its ex-members with a startling ferocity, some of whom talk about "spiritual abuse" or even violations of their human rights. They claim that the internal climate in Opus Dei which they describe as defensive, insular, and at times quasi-apocalyptic can be very different from the image Opus Dei would like to project. In English, the Opus Dei Awareness Network gives voice to these perspectives, as does the Web site in Spanish. These descriptions are contested by tens of thousands of satisfied members as well as ex-members who are still on good terms with Opus Dei. It may be that both groups are describing more or less the same reality, but as seen through different prisms one convinced that Opus Dei is indeed a "work of God," the other equally sure that Opus Dei is, to a significant extent, a human instrument of control and power.


Two Distinctions

The mystique and controversy surrounding Opus Dei make careful analysis a complicated task. In sorting through the issues, two distinctions may be helpful. The first is between the message of Opus Dei and the institution of Opus Dei. Whatever one makes of the fact that a minority of Opus Dei members wear a barbed chain called a "cilice" around their thigh for two hours a day, for example, or that Opus Dei will not publicize the names of its members, these are institutional practices derived from, and therefore secondary to, what Opus Dei is supposed to be all about. Given the attention those practices sometimes draw in the press and on the gossip mill, one can spend a lot of time reading and talking about Opus Dei without ever really touching upon its stated goals and mission.

Opus Dei had a different profile in Spain in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, when it was regarded as a "liberalizing" force in both secular politics and the Church. As the terms of debate within Catholicism and the broader culture evolve, it's possible to imagine a future in which Opus Dei's membership would once again appear less "traditional," less compactly "conservative."

At its core, the message of Opus Dei is that the redemption of the world will come in large part through laywomen and men sanctifying their daily work, transforming secularity from within. "Spirituality" and "prayer," according to this way of seeing things, are not things reserved primarily for church, a set of pious practices marked off from the rest of life; the real focus of the spiritual life is one's ordinary work and relationships, the stuff of daily living that, seen from the point of view of eternity, takes on transcendent significance. It is an explosive concept, with the potential for unleashing creative Christian energy in many areas of endeavor. The ambition is nothing less than reaching across centuries of Church history to revitalize the approach of the earliest Christians ordinary laywomen and men, indistinguishable from their colleagues and neighbors, going about their normal occupations, who nevertheless "catch fire" with the gospel and change the world.

As legitimate as public curiosity is about the hot-button issues surrounding Opus Dei, such as secrecy, money, and power, phrasing the conversation exclusively in these terms risks approaching Opus Dei through a back door, never quite seeing it as it sees itself. For that reason, after two chapters that offer a basic overview of Opus Dei and its founder, section 2 of this book (comprising chapters 3 through 6) is devoted to four cornerstones of the spirit of "the Work," as members refer to the core ideas of Opus Dei: the sanctification of work; being contemplatives in the middle of the world; Christian freedom; and "divine filiation," meaning a lively appreciation of one's identity as a son or daughter of God. Section 3 then takes up the most frequent questions about Opus Dei, from the status of women to methods of soliciting new members. Section 2 is therefore primarily about the message of Opus Dei, section 3 about the institution, though these distinctions are not airtight. As in any organization, Opus Dei's aims and aspirations help shape the institutional culture, just as the exigencies of the institution sometimes influence the way those aims are understood and applied.

As another way of expressing this distinction, several former members who remain on friendly terms with Opus Dei say their experience taught them that being drawn to the ideals of the group, especially that one's daily work can be a pathway to holiness, is not the same thing as being called to membership. One ex-member, who left Opus Dei after more than twenty-five years, put it this way: "It took me a long time to see that understanding and 'buying into' Opus Dei's message does not necessarily constitute a vocation to Opus Dei. ...I am in complete agreement with Opus Dei's message of the universal call to holiness, and of Saint Josemaría's spirituality of the sanctification of one's ordinary work and life. That is what attracted me to Opus Dei, and what still does. Yet, while I most definitely feel called to spread this universal call to holiness, I have never felt called to do it specifically 'according to the spirit and practice of Opus Dei.' "

The second distinction is between the sociology of Opus Dei members and the philosophy of Opus Dei. That philosophy can be summed up in the word "secularity," which means, in part, that Opus Dei doesn't wish to act as an interest group with its own agenda, but to form motivated laity who will draw their own conclusions in the realms of politics, law, finance, the arts, and so on. There is no Opus Dei "line" on tax policy, or the war on terrorism, or on how health care ought to be delivered, and in fact one will find that the Opus Dei membership holds a wide variety of views on these questions. One sees this in an especially concentrated form in Spain, where it's not uncommon for politicians who are members of Opus Dei to be subjected to withering attacks in the press by pundits who are also members of Opus Dei.

Today, however, the deepest political fault lines in the West tend to run along cultural issues such as abortion and homosexuality, and the emphasis within Opus Dei on "thinking with the Church" places its members solidly on the right on those questions not as members of Opus Dei, but as Catholics who favor a traditional reading of Church doctrine. Inevitably, this means that the kinds of people drawn to Opus Dei, at least in some parts of the world, are more likely to come from conservative circles, so that many Opus Dei members bring with them conservative attitudes on a host of other issues, both on secular politics and on debates inside the Catholic Church. Thus the political and theological tilt inside Opus Dei is clearly to the right, though with exceptions. This has little to do with the philosophy of Opus Dei, however, but rather with the sociology of where its "market" is these days.

These sociological tendencies are to some extent the accidents of a particular historical moment, and could change. Opus Dei had a different profile in Spain in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, when it was regarded as a "liberalizing" force in both secular politics and the Church. As the terms of debate within Catholicism and the broader culture evolve, it's possible to imagine a future in which Opus Dei's membership would once again appear less "traditional," less compactly "conservative." One of the challenges of this book, therefore, will be to sort out what's essential about Opus Dei from some of the secondary features that reflect the baggage of a given epoch, either inside the Catholic Church or in the world at large.




John L. Allen. "Introduction." from Opus Dei (New York: Doubleday, 2005) 1-8.

The Author

allenallen1 John L. Allen Jr. is associate editor of Crux, specializing in coverage of the Vatican and the Catholic Church. He has written nine books on the Vatican and Catholic affairs, and also is a popular speaker on Catholicism both in the United States and internationally. 

Copyright © 2005 John L. Allen
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